Ten Paces

Does intelligent design provide a plausible account of life’s origins?

Two writers go head to head.

By and From the January-February 2014 issue


But: Ice floats on water because God wills it so? Oh. 

It is possible, at a stretch (see below), to think up research projects based on an occasionalist approach to the origin of species, but the usual and natural human response to an occasionalist metaphysic is a passive sigh of insh’allah. This whole cast of mind is repulsive to the spirit of scientific curiosity.

Occasionalism should not be confused with the wind-it-up-and-let-it-go deism of (for example) Leibniz. The occasionalist Designer is very busy indeed, all the time, creating new genes and adaptations and body types.

And yes, occasionalism is the metaphysical position favored by Islam. Hence the near-invisibility of Muslims in the lists of Nobel prizewinners for the sciences. (Chemistry 1 out of 166; Physics 1 out of 196; Medicine 0 out of 204.) Luxembourg, population 500,000, has as many science Nobels as Islamia, population 1.6 billion. Go occasionalism!

Resisting occasionalism's pull toward passive fatalism, one can think of questions raised by an occasionalist approach to the origin of species, questions that might generate research projects. 

For example: When the Designer decides to create a new species that will be sexually reproducing, does He create one male and one female simultaneously? Or, for some genetic variety, many males but only one female? Or, for even more genetic variety, many of each sex? Thence to the oldest question of all: If the new species belongs to the higher orders of mammals, do they have belly-buttons?

Or, in the Newtonian spirit of understanding the Designer’s mind, one might ask whether there is any discernable pattern to the creation of new species. Any hypotheses as to why the rates of creation prior and subsequent to the Cambrian explosion seem to be so much less? Why is the rate irregular, rather than steady? 

Some close work in genomics, perhaps supplemented with fortuitous finds in the fossil record, should be able to shed light on topics like this. ID-ers, however, do not seem interested in pursuing such research.

Why would they? If there is a naturalistic path from gene A to gene B, it would be interesting to try to figure it out and see if it explains other phenomena. If, on the other hand, the Designer one day decides to increase the information content of the universe by changing gene A into gene B, there is no path to be discovered. It is hardly surprising, then, that so far as I can ascertain ID has no research programs at all. 

Nor do the proponents typically offer any speculative-imaginative theories as to the circumstances under which new species appear. The puff of orange smoke is of course meant facetiously; but what do ID-ers think actually happens when a new species appears, at some actual moment in time, at some actual point on the earth’s surface? I have never seen any of them address this point.

There hangs over the whole enterprise the atmosphere of the barstool crank, who wants to repeat to you over and over the one and only idea in his head, an idea that leads nowhere, to nothing interesting. Faced with a careful, reasoned refutation, he just repeats what he said before. Zzzzzzzz.

That is one aspect of a larger issue: ID-ers don’t behave like scientists. Given the above-mentioned fuzziness about what science actually is, it’s imprecise to say “they don’t do science,” but they sure don’t do it the way most scientists do it most of the time. 

ID is an entirely negative critique of modern biology. That can, at a stretch, count as scientific endeavor—Professor Jeffrey L. Kasser has words to say about that in his Great Course lectures on the Philosophy of Science—but it’s not how most science is done. This applies even to ID-ers like Michael Behe who are themselves working scientists. From an earlier article of mine on this point:

Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University and a critic of ID, wonders why Behe has never presented his ideas to the annual conference of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, as is his right as a member. As Miller explained, “If I thought I had an idea that would completely revolutionize cell biology in the same way that Professor Behe thinks he has an idea that would revolutionize biochemistry, I would be talking about that idea at every single meeting of my peers I could possibly get to.”

You sometimes hear from ID-ers that they can’t get their ideas into the scientific arena because orthodox biology is a closed guild fearful of revolutionary innovations. There are a number of ripostes one can make:

• You should at least try, as ID-ers like Behe obviously haven’t.

• A settled body of theory like modern biology, supported by masses of data painstakingly accumulated across a century or more, should be skeptical of revolutionary ideas, and demand that they offer a high standard of proof.

• When they do so, they are accepted. Ask Alfred Wegener, Albert Einstein, or, for that matter, Charles Darwin! If this were not the case, there would be no science.

• Ambitious young scientists dream of overturning established theories. It’s a way to lasting fame. See previous point.

All of which is a shame, because there are important gaps in our understanding of the world that ID, if it didn’t waste its time on far-fetched critiques of well-settled scientific topics, might have something to say about.

Last week I registered for the April 2014 Towards a Science of Consciousness conference at the University of Arizona in Tucson. It should be a fun week, with presentations on (to quote the website) “neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, molecular biology, medicine, quantum physics, and cosmology as well as art, technology, and experiential and contemplative approaches.”

I attended the 2008 conference. Keeping tabs on the topic, it seems that progress in putting together a science of consciousness is awful slow; but I figured that after six years it might be worth attending again.

The problem of Mind has vexed philosophers for at least as long as the Demarcation Problem. Is Mind a part of nature, or outside nature? Since the only minds we know of are intimately attached to brains—organs with a fairly well-understood phylogeny and ontogeny—it seems that a naturalistic explanation of Mind ought to be forthcoming, but no-one has come up with one that has received general acceptance. 

So the question is open, and for all we know it may be that Mind is outside nature. In that case, the kinds of interactions between Mind and nature that ID talks about can’t be ruled out.

This doesn’t seem to me intuitively very likely. Nor can I see how working biologists at present have any way to advance their understanding than through naturalistic enquiries, making their nonacceptance of ID perfectly reasonable. ID’s occasionalism offers them no research program, and ID, as I have noted, has none itself.

However, Mind is an extremely odd business, and my intuitions are merely those of some guy with a laptop. 

If there is any hope of understanding conscious experience and intentional intelligence, I’d bet 99 of my hundred dollars on the guys at Tucson to fulfill that hope, and only one on Intelligent Design. Hardly an endorsement; but one is not zero. 


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About the Author

Stephen C. Meyer is director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture and the author of Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligence Design. 

About the Author

John Derbyshire writes "Shelf Life," a books column, every other week. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism (Crown Forum).